I walk up to the pharmacy counter, having just stowed my shopping cart in a place where I hope it’ll be sufficiently out of the way so that no one will bump into it (but still within eyesight, lest anyone be tempted to make off with it instead of getting a cart from the proper place). I need to pick up a prescription, but there’s no one there. So I wait.
I can vaguely hear a deep voice coming from around the corner, towards the back area, where they prepare prescriptions. I crane my neck and look. Yup, there’s a person there. I can’t make out much in the way of specific physical features, but there appears to be a guy back there. He’s wearing a white coat and talking on the phone.
It sounds like the person on the other end of the phone is telling him their life story as he tries to work them through giving him the information that he needs to actually do his job. I can hear it in his voice, that he’s trying to be patient, provide good customer service, but that he really has better things to be doing than taking this call. Having worked in customer service quite a bit myself in the past, I know that tone all too well, having used it many times with customers.
Obviously he’s going to be a while, whether he likes it or not (smart money is on not). I decide to wait as patiently as I can. I whip out my phone, check my email. Make a note about something I was thinking earlier as I walked through the parking lot.
A line of customers is starting to form behind me. They are not looking so patient. They do not look patient at all. In fact, they glare at me, burning holes into me with enough intensity it feels as though they feel I’m the cause of the delay. Cool story, bro, I suppose.
I glance over at my shopping cart a few times as I listen to the pharmacy worker take the call. It’s still there. At least no one’s stolen it. So that’s good.
Finally, after several minutes, the call ends, and he emerges.
And much to my surprise, he’s incredibly conventionally attractive. Like, he looks like a movie star.
Oh no, I think, involuntarily feeling a bubble of dread rise up within my chest. This is going to be an awful interaction.
But instead he says, “I’m so sorry about the wait.” And in a tone that sounds not like customer service speak but as though he actually means it.
“No worries,” I say. “You were literally doing your job.”
He laughs. “I appreciate that.”
He’s stressed to the max. Due to some call-offs and questionable staffing decisions, he’s manning the shop alone. Even though I called in the prescription several hours ago, and it’s normally a super quick one to prepare, it’s not ready. Since he’s been straight out simply answering the phone and ringing things up. He hasn’t had a chance to fill anything that’s come in during that time.
When he tells me this, I expect he’ll tell me to come back a little later. Give me some kind of time frame. But instead, he tells me to wait right there. He darts out back, picks up the medication (which comes in a pre-made pack and doesn’t need to be counted) and hands it to me. In the span of about thirty seconds.
As I’m leaving, he thanks me once again for my patience, with a sincerity that tells me that he’s in the middle of a particularly awful day.
In spite of my initial dread, we have had a very pleasant interaction.
That Good-Looking Person Must Have All the Answers
I was happy to be wrong in this case, but there’s a reason I cringed when I saw that he was so good-looking. And that’s because of a little something called halo effect.
Halo effect is a psychological bias via which a person who has positive qualities in one area is perceived as “good” and assumed to have positive qualities in other, unrelated areas. So when you’re perceived as physically attractive, people tend to assume you have a lot of other positive qualities as well. Even if they’re not consciously aware of this. This means that physically attractive people often walk around receiving better treatment and being perceived as kinder, more skilled, and more intelligent than their less attractive counterparts.
This is fantastic news if you’re that nice-looking person, but it doesn’t come without its own large cost. It’s entirely common for attractive people to coast along on their good looks.
And because of my knowledge of halo effect (and how powerful and pervasive it can be), when I saw this inordinately pretty pharmacy technician, my instant reaction was to worry that they’d be rude or incompetent. Because I’ve encountered that combination so many times. Handsome as hell but useless and/or rude.
Halo effect is prevalent particularly in ambiguous settings, especially in self-help or coaching circles, where so much of a person’s perceived credibility is built on popularity and other more intangible factors. Clients are far more likely to hire a coach who they think is physically attractive but has mediocre skills over a less attractive one with a stronger skill set. It’s astonishing, really.
But something deep within our brains tend to scream, “That good-looking person must have all the answers.”
That Person With All the Answers Must Be Good Looking
And the inverse can often be true. If you seem like an inordinately wise or talented person, people will assume that you must be extremely good-looking and will actually get upset if they find out that you aren’t.
This actually happened to me. A while back, I received an award for sex-positive writing, a huge honor. As part of that, I was interviewed and featured by a widely read online magazine in an article with a head shot.
Now, I’ll be the first to say it: I’m a fairly average-looking person. I’m average height for a woman of my age. I also wear the average clothing size for an American woman, which is basically right at the extremes of both standard and plus sizing. I typically can either wear the largest size in standard clothes or the smallest size in plus. I have dark brown hair, dark brown eyes. My features are roughly symmetrical but nothing to write home about.
Certain people have found me attractive in the past (for example, my romantic partners). But I am not freakishly good looking. I don’t look like a model or an actress.
I look like the woman you’d ask to watch your stuff while you go to the bathroom. I know this to be literally true since people are basically always putting me in that role. Incidentally, I’m also the person strangers like to tell their life stories to on the city bus.
I am a pretty inoffensive, normal-looking person. Fairly nondescript.
So it was interesting when my award was publicized, and I received my first criticism of my physical appearance by a stranger. I’m not going to repeat exactly what they said since I don’t feel like making them feel special (because they aren’t, really, they’re just the first person who ever did this particular thing to me) — but they basically said that I was ugly and that my face was an eyesore.
Honestly, I came into writing for a public audience expecting to get that sort of criticism eventually. Other women have talked extensively about being subjected to that upon becoming public figures. If anything, I was surprised how late into my writing career that it happened. I’d had a large regular audience for quite some time. Had put out a few books. And was receiving an award. I really had expected that the “ew, you fuggo!” stage would have been sooner. But it wasn’t (so you can feel good about that aspect of it, I guess).
And while it was surprising when it happened, I didn’t take it to heart. And that was for a few different reasons:
- A great number of Internet users are 14. Adolescents anyway. Minors. Sometimes they’re reading sex education websites that they really shouldn’t be reading, like the one who was honoring me. Appearance-based insults from minors are hardly unsurprising. Kids in middle and high school basically insult one another’s appearance constantly, bullying each other about it. They also have a really warped perspective of what ugly and beautiful are, inundated mostly by media images of adults and not at all in touch with how they’re gonna look as adults. So for sure, I am ASS UGLY going by those standards. Fair critique, kiddo.
- There’s this expectation by certain readers that people who write about sex or sex positivity are simple sex objects who exist solely to give other people erections. And if we don’t do that, if we look anything less than boner-tastic, well, we’re not doing our job. (AKA: All sex bloggers should look like cam girls or ELSE!)
- Even adults expect famous people to be ridiculously good looking. Not that winning a writing award puts me into the big leagues fame-wise, but it’s enough to activate some people’s sense of “famous.”
While the first two are compelling explanations and likely could have played a part, I have seen far more evidence in my travels since then to support the third point: That people expect talented people to also be ridiculously good looking — and if they aren’t, it messes with their expectations in a way that makes them feel cheated or ripped off.
A person’s physical appearance better well match their talent — or else!
So I guess I can take it as a compliment that he thought I was uglier than I should be. It means he probably thinks I’m a pretty good writer. I’ll take it.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.